I stayed home from work for a couple of hours this morning to finish Thomas Ricks' "Fiasco." Time was running out: I started teaching a professional writing class at Rocky last week and MSU-Billings starts tomorrow (for me, anyway; students start on Wednesday).
It's quite a book. At times it's possible to imagine that it isn't about current events at all. Rather, it's a military history of some distant conflict that need no longer concern us. Ricks describes military operations in great detail and with great skill, and even he acknowledges in his notes at the end that he was amazed at how much information already is available: official unit reports, on-the-record interviews with soldiers and commanders, PowerPoint presentations, blogs, e-mails, transcripts.
The book essentially ends at the end of 2005, with only a brief afterword to bring matters up to the middle of 2006. That means we don't get Ricks' view of the latest "surge," but it's not hard to guess what his critique would be. His basic complaint is that both civilian and military leadership used the wrong kind of tactics to fight the wrong kind of war. Doing more of something that already isn't working is unlikely to lead to better results.
Still, there are notes of optimism near the end. One is improved training in counterinsurgency; another is at least slightly improved performance by Iraqi soldiers. Most important may have been improved tactics that led to successful operations in Fallujah and Tall Afar. At the same time, improved logistics have led to much better conditions for American soldiers. That cuts both ways: It boosts safety and morale but makes soldiers less likely to mingle with ordinary Iraqis, who will ultimately choose the victors.
But a grim tone hangs over the entire volume. The successful operations may not translate well to Baghdad, which is much larger and would require far more troops. And Ricks ends with four possible scenarios for the long term, each more frightening than the one before. The best would be a result similar to the Philippines, where Americans learned in a year or two to adapt to local conditions and effectively ended the war while leaving behind an occupying force for decades. The nightmare scenario is that a modern-day Saladin could arise who would combine popular support with huge oil revenues to pose a threat to the entire Western world. Gulp.
SIDEBAR: Edward Luttwak writes in the new Harper's that improved counterinsurgency tactics are irrelevant. The most effective way to deal with insurgents has been known since at least the Romans: brutal retaliation against any civilians who happen to be anywhere that attacks originate. It worked great for the Nazis. Of course, Luttwak says, those tactics are unacceptable in 21st century America, so we should not expect to be winning any wars against insurgents.